Turn young minds to dangerous thoughts

The Art of Teaching
May 27, 2005

This is not "101 Things to Do with Students". There are no "ice-breaking exercises" or "helpful hints" to divine so-called learning styles. Nor is it a "critique of the discourse" under which the teaching workforce, as the Government calls it, now labours in England. Jay Parini notes "the almost comical ineffectuality" of such deconstruction "where the jargon is so thick that nobody can understand it".

Parini was the first in his family to go to university - Lafayette, a middle-ranking college in the US scheme of things. "I spelled like Scott Fitzgerald and punctuated like William Faulkner... chaos reigned in these areas."

Nevertheless, inspired by Paul Goodman, among others, and radicalised into growing opposition to the Vietnam War, Parini spent a year at St Andrews University. "I see that my teaching life began there" as "I came to admire the British attitude toward teaching... in imitation of Oxford and Cambridge, where many of the faculty had studied." He later visited those universities after a masters and doctorate on Hopkins and Roethke, returning Stateside to teach at Dartmouth College, where "the students seemed terribly goal-oriented, and that goal was Wall Street or General Motors".

Uncomfortable as "a gatekeeper for corporate America", Parini won tenure at Middlebury College. He is the author of a campus novel and, over the decades there, he wrote poetry, criticism and biographies - including one of Robert Frost, who also once taught at the college. "As a writer who teaches", Parini reflects on his Middlebury life, where one imagines regulars at his favourite diner setting their watches by his morning arrival for coffee and bagels, eaten while filling spiral-bound notebooks with notes on the art and craft of teaching and writing.

"You learn to teach" not by following the competence-based standards the Teacher Training Agency has inflicted on schoolteachers and that will soon be visited on further and higher education, but in the manner of any apprenticeship, by imitation. That is why Parini's book should be mandatory on the many "induction" courses now more or less compulsory for higher education lecturing.

Contrary to "the whole direction of consumer-driven... rigid testing of students", Parini laments the loss of eccentricity and danger from teaching. "It is much safer to believe that if students have studied a certain sequence of texts and sat exams on this material, they have somehow moved closer to being educated," he writes. "In the post-9/11 world... everything in a student's previous life has been geared toward conformity (and) one of the few places where the possibility of serious criticism exists remains the college classroom." So "a teacher's job is distinctly political, in that he or she... must teach habits of resistance that fall under the category of critical thinking".

"An alternative vision" is "the unique gift of teacher to student". It is artfully captured in this elegiac memoir.

Patrick Ainley is professor of training and education, Greenwich University.

The Art of Teaching

Author - Jay Parini
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 160
Price - £10.99
ISBN - 0 19 516969 7

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